Cheap Thrills at 50

A celebration of the Crumb-kissed 2nd LP from Big Brother and the Holding Company

Cheap Thrills

As brash and brazen as Janis Joplin made herself seem onstage, it’s just as accurate to say that insecurity and loneliness always underscored her personality.

When I lived in St, Thomas Virgin Islands, I caught a glimpse of her sitting alone at an outdoor cafe, staring at the waterfront as if lost in her own solitude. I had a buddy who claimed he bedded her, but given his penchant for bravado, I chalked that up a desire to earn bragging rights. Still, that fleeting glance confirmed a suspicion, that for all her outward extroversion, she was decidedly lost and alone on the inside.

Always an outcast, she fled Texas, where she was raised, to find her voice, both literally and figuratively in San Francisco, a city that beckoned all those seduced by flower power, free love and the chance to be part of a culture where everyone was welcome to excise their inhibitions. Janis quickly ascended to the status of a high priestess, an emotive, energized performer who embraced the powers of sexual suggestion while willing to give her all.

While Joplin’s early muse steered her towards traditional folk and blues, her union with Brig Brother and the Holding Company amplified those intents, and though the band’s eponymous debut provided a test launch, Cheap Thrills affirmed their singer’s stardom. They had already previewed several songs while electrifying a rapt crowd at the Monterey International Pop Festival the summer before, but it took that landmark album — a mere seven songs long — to confirm what the mesmerized legion already knew, that Joplin was a singer of such exceptional power and verbosity that she she could wield both drama and distinction. Three of its offerings were destined to become staples — “Ball and Chain,” “Summertime” and “Piece of My Heart,” the latter a showstopper of such uncommon distinction it practically oozed its desperation and desire. Essentially Joplin’s backing band, Big Brother was content to simply provide support, while Janis’ voice overshadowed them all. Ironically, all three of those aforementioned songs were covers, but it was obvious at the outset that Joplin genuinely owned them entirely.

Still, the fact that the band were signed to the otherwise staid Columbia Records proved something of a challenge in terms of the band asserting its stance. The album was originally titled Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills, but the label quashed that name early on. The album art, by noted underground comic artist R. Crumb was originally intended to grace the back cover of the album, but ended up on the front after Columbia nixed a proposed photo of the group naked together in bed. Crumb supposedly refused compensation, declaring that he didn’t want to be a part of any corporate compensation.

Whether or not Cheap Thrills is the greatest white blues album ever made is decidedly a matter of opinion. The Electric Flag, Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughn are clearly in contention for that distinction as well. But suffice it to say no white woman has ever sounded so emotive, so evocative, so verbose, and so utterly authentic while purveying the basics of the blues. If Big Brother simply seemed a footnote to Joplin’s lingering legacy — she would abandon them by year’s end after all —  they at least deserved credit for being there when they were needed the most and offering her opportunity to ascend to stardom in the short time she was allowed.

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